Eddie Barnes: Gay rights are an issue savvy politicians can’t afford to ignore

‘IF YOU’RE not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you. And that does transform things.” So declared Tammy Baldwin on Wednesday night, a few hours after ­being elected as the new Democrat Senator for Wisconsin. Baldwin had just become America’s first ever openly gay member of the nation’s upper house.

‘IF YOU’RE not in the room, the conversation is about you. If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you. And that does transform things.”

So declared Tammy Baldwin on Wednesday night, a few hours after ­being elected as the new Democrat Senator for Wisconsin. Baldwin had just become America’s first ever openly gay member of the nation’s upper house.

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“Having a seat at the table matters and I think we will see a Senate that is more reflective of America,” she added. “We’re certainly not there yet, but this will be a change that moves us forward.”

Baldwin was just one of hundreds of Democrat senators, congressmen and women celebrating with their new president last week, as America opted to reject the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. And while Barack Obama may have won back the White House, one of the many sub-plots within the Democrat win was a major cultural victory for the country’s social liberals. Along with Baldwin, three gay men won seats in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, in three states – Maine, Washington and Maryland – state-wide referendums returned majorities, albeit small, in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. Although Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia had already done so through court decisions, it was fresh ground for voters to indicate a collective preference to legislators.

With two other states – Colorado and Washington – both backing proposals to legalise marijuana, and with voters in Florida rejecting a proposal to ban the use of public funds for abortion, the liberal trend at last week’s election was notable. Where America leads, the world follows, goes the saying. More accurate, perhaps, is that America’s high-profile result, and the caning handed to its garrulous socially conservative wing, shone a spotlight on what looks like a growing trend in the Western world.

On this side of the Atlantic, Scottish ministers are preparing to publish their own plans to legalise same-sex marriage here, with Westminster likely to follow suit for the rest of the UK soon. Last week, in a wave of decisions on same-sex marriage, other European neighbours made their intentions clear too. In France, the government – President François Hollande made same-sex marriage a key part of his campaigning for the Élysée Palace earlier this year – adopted a draft bill to authorise gay marriage and adoption in the country, insisting, in the face of opposition from the Catholic Church and others, that it would provide “legal protection” for the family.

That came just a day after Spain’s highest court upheld the country’s own gay marriage law, confirming the legality of same-sex unions, by a majority of eight High Court judges to three. Other European nations, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark are among 11 countries around the world that have already gone ahead. So was last week a harbinger of a more socially liberal world or does it merely demonstrate that savvy politicians are now becoming wise to the fact that supporting same-sex marriage – and other liberal measures – is a vote winner in an increasingly younger and more diverse electorate?

The shift in attitudes is well documented. In Scotland in 2000 (when the country was divided by a row over a law called Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools), 48 per cent of the population said same-sex relationships were always or mostly wrong. By 2010, that figure had fallen to just 27 per cent. Today, only one in three people say they would be unhappy if a family member formed a relationship with someone of the same sex, fewer than those who say the same if a loved one joined up with a gypsy or a traveller.

On the sensitive question of whether parents would be happy with their primary school children being taught by a gay man or woman, 56 per cent now say it is “suitable”, up from 48 per cent in 2006. The same trend in Scotland has been reflected throughout the Western world. Pro-gay rights groups – and their social conservative opponents – agree that there has been a snowball effect. The most significant factor, says Tim Hopkins, of the Equality Network in ­Edinburgh, is simple familiarity. “There is a change in people’s attitudes and that is happening all over the world. “We think the biggest factor is people coming out. As a result, many more people now say ‘yes’ when asked whether they have a family member or a friend who are LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender]. Then they realise that these people aren’t different from anyone else. You heard from people in the States saying they voted for same-sex marriage because they wanted their gay brother to get married just like they did.”

The facts bear out the argument; in the US, most people 20 years ago told pollsters they knew no-one who was gay. This year, the number stands at around half – and recent polls show a small majority are now in favour of gay marriage. Academics point to the fact that one of America’s most popular sitcoms, Modern Family, includes a gay couple with an adopted daughter. Popular with Democrats and Republicans, the show only took the step of including the characters in the knowledge that viewers would find them normal, funny and, above all, recognisable. A similar trend has occurred in the UK. “One in four gay couples are now raising a child,” notes Oxford University’s Tim Stanley. “Gays and lesbians are now more visible and accepted.”

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In tandem with this has been the West’s growing unfamiliarity with traditional religious belief. With fewer people having even a basic understanding of the doctrines which underpin opposition to same-sex marriage, there is less sympathy with traditional Christian or other faith teachings on the matter. It has been replaced, say religious groups, by the “it’s-OK-as-long-as-it-doesn’t-hurt-anyone” moral viewpoint.

In Scotland, the debate on same-sex marriage has moved so far that it is the Catholic Church which now claims it has become a social pariah. After its leader, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, was recently awarded the “Bigot of the Year” award by the gay rights group Stonewall, it was the Church which accused the gay rights movement of “intolerance”. The roles have been neatly reversed.

And yet in socially conservative Australia, parliament recently opposed a plan to introduce gay marriage, with the support of Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard. With a razor-thin majority to protect, she noted how, as someone single herself, “you can have a relationship or love and ­commitment and trust and ­understanding that doesn’t need a marriage certificate. That’s my life experience”.

Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, Members of the Legislative Assembly recently knocked back a Green party bid to legalise same-sex marriage. It came after the Presbyterian church in Northern Ireland warned it would “effectively demolish generations and centuries of societal norms established on Judaeo-Christian values”.

In Scotland and most of the Western World, the gay rights movement believes the tide is now going out on such attitudes. As regards the Scottish Government’s same-sex marriage plans, Hopkins of the Equality Network notes: “We always expected some kind of backlash but we aren’t expecting it to be the same as with Section 28. There is a new coalition of voters including young people and women who are much more in favour of same-sex marriage than others”.

Big business is also giving the cause a push, although perhaps more to protect its sales than for altruistic reasons. America’s election season showed how snowball effect” at work with leading executives deciding they could now take the risk of publicly backing gay rights causes without the fear it might alienate their customer base. They included the billionaire founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who donated $2.5 million in support of Washington’s gay-marriage effort, and a $600,000 cheque from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It helped ensure that, in the US White House race, gay rights groups vastly outspent their opponents – by four to one, according to some estimates.

None the less, with every action comes a reaction. In Scotland, the Scotland for Marriage campaign, which opposes the Government’s plans, insists that the ­decision to press ahead with gay marriage has “galvanised” supporters. With no political party backing its position, the group announced earlier this month that it is to take its campaign to individual MSPs. “MSPs might think they can easily blend into the background at a national level,” a spokesman said. “However, that comfortable anonymity disappears when they are faced with direct questioning at the local level by those to whom they are directly accountable.”

The SNP has also faced dissent from within its own ranks, from no less a figure than elder statesman Gordon Wilson, who told a fringe meeting at the party’s annual conference last month that approval of same-sex marriages was putting the country on the road to “fascism”. Meanwhile, a consultation exercise is about to start on providing protections with the legislation – due to be enacted next year – for religious ministers, teachers and other public sector workers who object to this new statute.

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Ministers have pledged to ensure that these issues are ironed out before the new legislation comes into force. But although it may be a minority of groups continuing to ask difficult questions about potential consequences, politicians will know they remain a vocal and motivated force.

It was Ruth Davidson, the gay Scots Tory leader, who perhaps caught the Zeitgeist the best earlier this month by turning up to collect an award for her achievements by gay rights group Stonewall, but then criticising its decision to hand the “bigot” award to Cardinal O’Brien.

The battle lines of the past are being changed and reinvented; with traditional American families enjoying the travails of a familiar gay couple on their favourite sitcom, while a lesbian Tory in Scotland attacks intolerance against the Church. As Baldwin said, when the conversation is with you, and not about you, it does transform things.